Facebook's plan to own (and destroy) your smartphone with AR

Facebook plans to turn every smartphone into an AR hub allowing it to control the future of the industry.

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Mark Zuckerberg already controls much of how we regularly interact with other humans, but now he appears to be taking things a step further and change how we view reality itself. At Facebook’s F8 developer conference, Zuckerberg talked about a world where augmented reality merges with the real world, letting us see and interact with objects in ways which feel like something out of a video game. For now, our smartphones will be the avenue through which we experience this combination of the digital and the real until Zuckerberg can come up with something better.

AR developments

Facebook’s interest in augmented reality and its cousin virtual reality is hardly news, as was best shown when Facebook acquired VR headset maker Oculus Rift back in 2014. And the success of Snapchat and the Pokémon Go craze last year already showed the potential of AR.

What is new is Facebook’s ambitions with AR and how it plans to carry it out. Pokémon Go was certainly fascinating technology and a creative use of AR, but it showed AR’s limitations. While it was incredible to see the creatures at churches or restaurants, they were not really part and parcel of those locations. I remember wildly swinging my phone around in frustration trying to actually get a Kingler to show up on my screen.

It was hard enough to get Pokémon attached to churches or buildings. What Facebook wants is to attach augmented reality constructs like jumping sharks or 3-D words to objects like a coffee pot or cereal bowl.

A practical example which Zuckerberg used is a wine bottle. A user could add an information card on a wine bottle with details such as reviews, information about that particular brand, or a link about where to buy said bottle. Another user could look at that same wine bottle through his phone and see that card. Other examples, as Zuckerberg told USA Today, could include playing chess with a friend via an AR app instead of having to buy a chessboard or even watching TV on a blank wall without a TV.

Moving beyond the smartphone

For now, Zuckerberg intends to portray this new augmented reality through smartphones as he called the smartphone camera “the first augmented reality platform.” But that does not mean it will be the final platform, as Zuckerberg has made it clear that the smartphone is simply the best tool he has currently available rather than what he wants.

If one seriously thinks about it, there are problems with using a smartphone as the primary augmented reality platform. Smartphone screens are small and do not have much computational power. You cannot hold a smartphone 24/7. And the wide differences in capabilities between different smartphones and their cameras could give users with weaker phones an inferior AR experience.

So while Zuckerberg wants to essentially turn phones into AR devices for now, his real interest is in wearables. He explicitly stated that “we all want glasses or eventually contact lenses that look and feel normal but let us overlay all kinds of information and digital objects on top of the real world.”

Facebook is not currently looking at building such wearables itself and believes that the technology is at least five years away. It is focusing on improving AR technology first out of the belief that if it can get AR to become a ubiquitous part of phones, it will be able to migrate AR technology to wearables when the right technology is developed.

Can it be done?

Zuckerberg certainly has huge ambitions with AR and wearables. But can it work? Because as happens with any talk of wearables, the ghost of Google Glass lingers over such plans as a warning that advanced technology will not always be instantly snapped up by consumers.

The challenge which Facebook faces with developing AR is that it needs to define what it is actually for. This was Google Glass’s primary mistake, as it clearly aimed at the wrong demographic by aiming for the mass consumer market instead of businesses and industries where it has undergone a mini-renaissance. And a lot of the focus around AR has been on its potential business applications, whether it is laying out virtual plans for a new building or helping to showcase products.

Will Facebook emphasize the business applications of AR, or will it be more entertainment and consumer-focused with virtual chessboards and TVs? And when AR wearables do become realistic technology, Facebook cannot repeat Google Glass’s mistakes of invoking privacy concerns and appearing utterly ridiculous. And even if Facebook avoids those mistakes, consumers may not be interested in putting on a pair of glasses to watch a TV show.

While concerns about customer interest are legitimate, making and improving the technology comes first. AR will almost certainly be revolutionary, and Facebook’s interest in turning every smartphone into an AR hub speaks well to its ambitions and desire to change how we perceive the world. 

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